Sory Kandia Kouyaté was one of the most celebrated singers in West Africa when he died suddenly in 1977. He was just 44, and given his spectacular voice, it's a safe bet that Kouyaté would have been an international star had he lived just a few years longer. Now, some of his finest recordings have been collected on a two-disc retrospective called La Voix de la Révolution.
With Kouyaté, the voice is everything. Few African singers of any era could match him on technique, articulation or sheer power. Many of his songs, like "Tara," are part of the centuries-old Mande praise-song tradition, which he inherited through his family line. But in Kouyaté's heyday, the 1960s and '70s, that tradition was getting a jazzy, big-band makeover in Guinea.
In "Tara," the plinking notes of the ancient wooden balafon tumble right into the popular Latin rhythms of the day. Africa was opening to the world, and nothing drove the point home better than Kouyaté's sublime tenor.
One of the earliest recordings in this set, "Nina," is a love song to a girl; Kouyaté first sang it in the mid-'50s. That might seem unremarkable, except when you consider that in a world of arranged marriages, artistic declarations of romantic love were not only unusual, but revolutionary. A landmark recording, "Nina" inspired a succession of popular West African love songs.
Roughly half the tracks in the compilation are traditional performances — operatic renderings of epic stories from the past. In "Toutou Diarra," Kouyaté is accompanied by legendary players of the kora harp and the balafon.
Sory Kandia Kouyaté once sang a duet with Paul Robeson in Austria, so he did get a taste of international celebrity. But he missed the global African music boom of the 1980s and '90s. Imagining what Kouyaté might have become is one of those painful "what-ifs" in music history. The good news is that, thanks to this collection, we can discover and savor one of the finest voices Africa has ever produced.